Words Matter

Three words with the same root, but learn the different meanings.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran,

Judaism Rabbi Dr. E.Safran
Rabbi Dr. E.Safran

Words matter to Jews.  Language matters.  Hebrew, filled with beauty and poetic power, is a language in which words carry not just superficial meaning, not just historical context, but also deep, sacred import.  One way in which we see the near-mystical relationship of words and phrases is in the study of Gematriyah, the system of assigning numerical values to letters, recognizing that words or phrases that share identical numerical values share a deep connection to one another. 

On a more structural level, as a language, Hebrew is built upon the shoresh, the traditionally three-letter root.  Words derived from a common shoresh share a conceptual, almost-familial relation with one another.

With this understanding and appreciation of the Hebrew language, what are we to make of the chassid?  “chassid” comes from the shoresh “ch, s, d” which means, piety, sensitivity, humility.  Certainly, based on this root, it makes perfect sense that the usual picture that comes to mind when we think of the chassid is one of an individual defined by genuine piety and religious humility.  If you are like me, you likely immediately have an image of a gentle religious soul who, by his acts of charity and piety, brings the best lessons of Judaism to life.

The chassid is the embodiment of the great, most meritorious teachings of Judaism; of piety, of rachmanus, of gentle kindness.  Based on our understanding of the Hebrew language, we should be able to look at other words that are derived from the same shoresh in order to discern a fuller, deeper, more insightful sense of what it means to be a chassid. 

But then we come upon the listing of non-kosher species in Parashat Shemini and we find included there with the other non-kosher birds the chassidah, the stork.  How strange!  How could it be that a bird whose name incorporates the word chesed, that is derived from the shoresh “ch, s, d” is not kosher?  Piety.  Goodness.  Humility.  Charity of spirit.  These are the very essence of kashrut, are they not?  Clearly, “chassidah” has to teach us something about what it means to be a chassid.  But what could it be?  To be intimately related to chesed and yet be non-kosher seems such a stark contradiction!

If the chassidah, the stork, is non-kosher, why bestow her with a name of such noble heritage?

Why is a non-kosher animal not kosher to begin with?  The fundamental reason is because God determined it to be so.  Good-hearted Jews have for generations assigned “rational” reasons for why certain animals are treif and others allowed.  As well-intentioned as this effort is, it misses the truth that the distinction between kosher and non-kosher animals exists simply because God determines it to be so.  That said, in this determination, the Torah delineates some guidelines that define criteria which make a kosher animal kosher. 

To be kosher, an animal must chew the cud and must have cloven hooves.  Animals that do not meet these two criteria are not kosher.  Likewise, animals that only meet one of the criteria but not the other are considered non-kosher.  The camel is non-kosher because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves.  The pig has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud.

When it comes to birds, it is a bit harder to categorize what makes one non-kosher and another kosher other than its inclusion on the lists in the Torah.  However, Rambam adds to our understanding of why the Torah forbids the eating of non-kosher birds when he teaches that when one eats non-kosher birds, the negative and cruel character traits they possess can become part of our own personalities.  In other words, more than the physical characteristic there are also behavioral or personality characteristics that go into the categorization. 

Which brings us back to the chassidah, the stork.  If this bird truly earned its connection to charity and piety, then certainly we would want to eat it so that, as Ramban suggests, we too may gain those very same qualities.

Clearly, that cannot be the entire picture.  And it is not. 

Rashi considered the case of the chassidah and, based upon a Talmudic passage in Chulin, explains the limitation in the quality of the chassidah that, despite its connection to charity and kindness, keeps it from being kosher.  Like a distant cousin in a good and decent family, the chassidah does share the characteristic of kindness that is endemic to the chassid.  However, the chassidah only displays kindness to her own kind.  She is charitable, but only to her own kind.  She is caring, but only to her own kind.  Her goodness is real, but limited.  She does not give any other bird a single thought.  She ignores every other species. 

And in this way, she falls short of the true quality of chesed, of the chassid. 

When we look to the true chassid, we see magnanimity of goodness.  Genuine chesed does not limit itself; it does not say, I will be kind and caring to this one but not to that one.  Goodness does not discriminate in genuine chesed.  

The genuine chassid knows that in every one of God’s creatures there is good and evil, nobility and crassness.  He knows that judging one from the other is not his to do.  With true humility, he greets each of God’s creatures with the same gentle kindness.  Kosher chesed is chesed for all.  To limit it to “my kind” is, by definition, to make it something other than chesed.  Kosher chesed cannot be limited to only those who look, think and act like me.  Limiting chesed to those whose hashkafos are synonymous to mine, is treif.

Is there anything more damaging to the Jewish community than the various schisms and rifts that tug it apart?  Anything more hurtful than the way one judges a fellow Jew by the most cruel or superficial of distinctions?  Chesed, by its very nature, seeks to heal such hurts, not to perpetuate them.  Chesed must be chesed for all. 

As we see with the chassidah¸ one who thinks of himself as a chassid but who contributes to the judgments and opinions that harms K’lal Yisrael is, in fact, non-kosher, despite good deeds or determined piety. 

R’ Elyah Chaim Meisel adds another dimension to our discussion. chassidah does indeed represent kindness, compassion but chassidah is more closely related to chassidus than to chesed.  Our sages suggest that chassidus implies doing more than expected, going beyond the letter of the law – lifnim mishuras hadin.  It is true that the stork is good to its own kind, but even in its kindness she feels that she is doing more than expected.  Each time she extends herself, she thinks she deserves acknowledgement.  

For the genuine chassid, being kind and expressing goodness comes from a place of such humility that it would never occur to him that his behavior is anything but as it should be.  If anything, he would seek to do more, never believe he is doing too much. 

The chassid gives of himself as a natural expression of who he is, whenever and to whomever he can.   The charity of the chassidah derives from her ego, not her humility.  For this reason, hers is a negative posture that should be avoided. 

Yes, the chassidah shares positive characteristics, and even behaviors, with the chassid.  From the outside, there are times when her works could even be confused to be on a par with the chassid.  But her good works come from such a different place that she can never be the ideal to which we aspire.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.